The benefits of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ for speakers

These filler syllables—known to experts as disfluencies—give you time to think, but they also cue your audience that something important is coming. They help you land your key points.

I once had to follow a speech by the famous sexologist Doctor Ruth.

I was in her audience because I didn’t want to miss her talk and thus was late to my own speech, as it would take place in a smaller venue a short jog away.

Do not follow Dr. Ruth. She’s hilarious, and she’s talking about the No. 2 fascination of the species (after Internet cat videos).

Also, don’t arrive at your own speech late and out of breath.

I began my speech with more than the usual number of disfluencies—what are commonly known as verbal slips. I was “umming” and “ahhing” through the opening of my speech when a nice Southern woman sitting in the front row raised her hand.

I almost didn’t call on her, because I was only 45 seconds into my speech, but I thought I might be able to catch my breath a bit better, so I said, “Yes?”

She said, “So, ya’ll call yourself an expert on public speaking, right?”

I knew this was not headed in a good direction, but what could I do? She had me. If I said no, then why was I giving a presentation on public speaking? If I said yes, well, here’s what happened.

“Yes?” (Note the rising intonation, denoting a lack of confidence and a high degree of uncertainty.)

“Well, I’ve counted 6 ‘ums’ in the first 30 seconds of your speech, so how can you call yourself an expert?”

I thought: Oh, crap. I said to the audience: “How many other people here noticed all those ums and found them distracting?”

In my desperation, I had stumbled on the best response. Always crowdsource your answer when the questioner has you over a barrel.

The audience all said they hadn’t noticed. That allowed me to catch my breath, finally, and point out that ums and ahs were a problem only if people noticed them and they became an obstacle to comprehension.

Everyone seemed happy with this answer, it shut up my hostile witness, and I was able to complete the speech.

More help than hindrance

Now I have a further set of reasons as to why disfluencies—the ums and ahs—are not only not a problem, but actually helpful.

New research shows that these hitherto scorned slips of speech perform three useful functions:

1. They stall things for the speaker, allowing her to think about what to say next.

2. Because everyone knows that the speaker is stalling for time, we tend to listen more attentively to what’s coming next, assuming that it is more thoughtful than what has come before. So we rate the expertise of phrases that follow an um more highly than other phrases.

3. Because we’re listening more carefully, we understand what follows an um better and remember it more clearly than other utterances.

So the next time you’re inclined to criticize a speaker who is using ums and ahs, refrain. You’re actually understanding that speaker better than you were before.

Disfluencies may be coming soon to a robot near you, by the way. Because ums and ahs improve both speed of comprehension and retention, experimenters are beginning to study the idea that our bionic friends should talk to us in the same way as us clumsier humans—in order to be better understood.

Thank you, Dr. Ruth.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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